DETROIT – It was almost something worth celebrating.
Graduate student defenseman Christian Krygier, who returned to MSU for a fifth season alongside his identical twin brother Cole Krygier, had been so much more poised this season than his previous four with the Spartans. His on-ice maturity had spiked with his penalty count significantly down. But most importantly, Christian Krygier had been avoiding the costly turnovers and inexplicable, boneheaded moves that far too often left everyone scratching their heads.
And then midway through the second period of the ‘Duel in the D’ at Little Caesars Arena, an old demon for Christian Krygier resurfaced. He corralled the puck and skated across the Spartan blue line along the left wall. Then, Krygier suddenly stopped and peered behind him. The puck hit the linesman and a Wolverine in a maize sweater blazed past him, taking control of the puck.
It was too late. Michigan countered the other way, scoring on a 3-on-1 off an unassisted shot from freshman forward Frank Nazar III, a 2022 first-round NHL draftee who was playing in his very first collegiate series. The Spartans had led 2-1 not even two minutes prior, but now suddenly trailed 3-2.
“Well the guy skated right into the ref so I mean, it's not really just the lucky bounce,” Nazar III said. “The guy went right into the ref. He's gotta get his head up. I mean, obviously I get the chance to take advantage of it, I'm going to. You could call it a lucky play, but that's what happened.”
Michigan State Head Coach Adam Nightingale inquired with the officials on whether or not the play could be challenged, but it couldn't, leaving MSU victims of a go-ahead goal off the goofy play.
“I actually felt bad for the linesman because as soon as it hit him, his body language was like, obviously they're trying to do the best they can do,” Nightingale said. “(It was) obviously not intentional.”
It’s moments like that which have been, and will continue to, determine the fate of No. 15 Michigan State’s lukewarm season. It’s gone both ways, like when the Spartans first faced Michigan in East Lansing in December and a harmless Cole Krygier shot nicked off the glove of Wolverine junior goaltender Erik Portillo to contribute to a 2-1 MSU victory. Or the next night in Ann Arbor, when a shot from the point redirected off the shoulder of a Michigan forward in front of the net.
All four of the contests between No. 5 Michigan and No. 15 Michigan State have been closely contested, a stark indictment of the strides MSU has already taken in Nightingale’s first year. Saturday night in Detroit, the Christian Krygier turnover and sophomore defenseman Luke Hughes’s overtime buzzer beater were the difference between critical points in the Big Ten standings, and also MSU’s Pairwise ranking in its quest for an NCAA Tournament berth.
“I also think we play a game (where) you make your breaks,” Nightingale said. “I'm not gonna say it's a bad bounce or anything. I don't believe in bad bounces. That gets talked with our guys like, we're a program that holds our guys accountable. So if I go in there and say, 'hey, it's a bad bounce' I'm doing actually a disservice of helping them develop.”
As Michigan State clawed its way back from the 3-2 deficit, Portillo played some of his best goaltending with a pair of outstanding saves to start the third period. The Spartans finally beat Portillo for a third time with 4:55 remaining on a shot from the point from perhaps Michigan State’s least expected goalscorer: graduate transfer defenseman Michael Underwood. It was his first goal as a Spartan and just his sixth across five seasons of college hockey.
Then in overtime, Michigan State was gifted with a golden opportunity to steal the game when a brilliant forecheck from freshman forward Daniel Russell created a turnover and a subsequent Michigan tripping penalty. The Spartans registered just one shot on goal during the 4-on-3 advantage, a chance from distance by sophomore defenseman David Gucciardi.
“We had a couple good looks,” Nightingale said. “Sometimes I think 4-on-3 is harder than 5-on-5 just because the way they're set up in a triangle and you're kind of in an umbrella. They did a good job. They got some guys that can skate and then it made it hard for us to enter the zone.”
The Wolverines buzzed following the pivotal penalty kill, applying the majority of the pressure for the final 46 seconds of overtime. Michigan senior defenseman Jay Keranen rifled a shot from the point that sailed well wide of the MSU net, but perfectly caromed off the end wall as the clock ticked down. The puck landed on the stick of Hughes adjacent to graduate transfer goaltender Dylan St. Cyr, who quickly fired it into the net with less than a second remaining.
“I mean, obviously it's a big turnaround from last year and I think our team, we just got to keep building on this weekend,” sophomore forward Tanner Kelley, who made two assists, said. “I thought we played really well this weekend. I think we gotta just keep building on this for the rest of this season and hopefully we get those guys again in the playoffs.”
With the logjam that now separates third and sixth place in the Big Ten by just one point, the margins for error are as slim as can be. The Spartans play just two more games (a road series at Wisconsin next week), with every other team besides Notre Dame holding four games to be decided. An MSU sweep at Wisconsin – who has just 12 points but upset No. 1 Minnesota Saturday night – would do wonders for the Spartans’ chances of hosting a Big Ten Tournament game, but they will still need losses from Ohio State, Notre Dame and Penn State.
And when it comes down to it, instances like Saturday’s that turn games upside down could make or break the ending to Michigan State’s season. Those moments used to always go against the Spartans favor and did again in their sixth consecutive ‘Duel in the D’ loss. Now, they don’t control their own destiny for home ice, and need some balanced misfortune from their foes.
“I think if you look a year ago, there's a pretty wide gap and it's not that way,” Nightingale said. “We still have a ways to go as a team. We still need to be improving and believe in the power of improvement, but when you look at our team, I'm pretty confident that our team's getting better.”